Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

This year, she was supposed to be taking biology, and she was already nervous about the unit on genetics. Josie didn't know if her father had brown eyes or blue ones; if he had curly hair or freckles or six toes. Her mother had shrugged off Josie's concerns. "Surely there's someone in your class who's adopted," she said. "You know fifty percent more about your background than they do."

  This is what Josie had pieced together about her father:

  His name was Logan Rourke. He'd been a teacher at the law school her mother had attended.

  His hair had gone white prematurely, but--her mother assured her--in a cool, not creepy, way.

  He was ten years older than her mother, which meant he was fifty.

  He had long fingers and played the piano.

  He couldn't whistle.

  Not quite enough to fill a standard biography, if you asked Josie, not that anyone ever bothered to.

  She was sitting in bio lab next to Courtney. Josie ordinarily would not have picked Courtney as a lab partner--she wasn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier--but that didn't seem to matter. Mrs. Aracort was the teacher-adviser to the cheerleaders, and Courtney was one of those. No matter how skimpy their lab reports turned out, they still always managed to get A's.

  A dissected cat brain was sitting on the front desk next to Mrs. Aracort. It smelled of formaldehyde and looked like roadkill, which would have been bad enough, but in addition, last period had been lunchtime. ("That thing," Courtney had shuddered, "is going to make me even more bulimic.") Josie was trying not to look at it while she worked on her class project: each student had been given a wireless-enabled Dell laptop to surf the Net for examples of humane animal research. So far Josie had catalogued a primate study being done by an allergy pill manufacturer, where monkeys were made asthmatic and then cured, and another one that involved SIDS and puppies.

  She hit a browser button by mistake and got a home page for The Boston Globe. Splashed across the screen was election coverage: the race between the incumbent district attorney and his challenger, the dean of students at Harvard Law School, a man named Logan Rourke.

  Butterflies rose inside Josie's chest. There couldn't be more than one, could there? She squinted, leaning closer to the screen, but the photograph was grainy and there was a sunlight glare. "What's wrong with you?" Courtney whispered.

  Josie shook her head and closed the cover of her laptop, as if it, too, could hold fast to this secret.

  *

  He never used a urinal. Even if Peter just had to pee, he didn't want to do it standing next to some gargantuan twelfth grader who might make a comment about, well, the fact that he was a puny ninth grader, particularly in his nether regions. Instead, he'd go into a stall and close the door for privacy.

  He liked to read the bathroom walls. One of the stalls had a running series of knock-knock jokes. Others blurted the names of girls who gave blow jobs. There was one scribble that Peter found his eye veering toward repeatedly: TREY WILKINS IS A FAGGOT. He didn't know Trey Wilkins--didn't think he was even a student at Sterling High anymore--but Peter wondered if Trey had come into the bathroom and used the stalls to pee, too.

  Peter had left English in the middle of a pop quiz on grammar. He truly didn't think that in the grand scheme of life, it was going to matter whether or not an adjective modified a noun or a verb or just dropped off the face of the earth, which is what he was sincerely hoping would happen before he had to go back to class. He had already done his business in the bathroom; now he was just wasting time. If he failed this quiz, it would be the second in a row. It wasn't even his parents' anger that Peter was worried about. It was the way they'd look at him, disappointed that he hadn't turned out more like Joey.

  He heard the door of the bathroom open, and the busy slice of hallway noise that trailed on the heels of the two kids who entered. Peter ducked down, scanning beneath the stall door. Nikes. "I'm sweating like a pig," said one voice.

  The second kid laughed. "That's because you're a lard-ass."

  "Yeah, right. I could beat you on a basketball court with one hand tied behind my back."

  Peter could hear a faucet running, water splashing.

  "Hey, you're getting me soaked!"

  "Aaaah, much better," the first voice said. "At least now I'm not sweating. Hey, check out my hair. I look like Alfalfa."

  "Who?"

  "What are you, retarded? The kid from the Little Rascals with the cowlick thing on the back of his head."

  "Actually, you look like a total fag . . ."

  "You know . . ." More laughter. "I do sort of look like Peter."

  As soon as Peter heard his name, his heart thumped hard. He slid open the bolt in the stall door and stepped outside. Standing in front of the bank of sinks was a football player he knew only by sight, and his own brother. Joey's hair was dripping wet, standing up on the back of his head the way Peter's sometimes did, even when he tried to slick it down with his mother's hair gel.

  Joey flicked a glance his way. "Get lost, freak," he ordered, and Peter hurried out of the bathroom, wondering if that was even possible when you'd been missing most of your life.

  *

  The two men standing in front of Alex's bench shared a duplex, but hated each other. Arliss Undergroot was a Sheetrock installer with tattoos up and down both arms, a shaved head, and enough piercings in his head to have set off the metal detectors at the courthouse. Rodney Eakes was a vegan bank teller with a prized record collection of original cast recordings from Broadway shows. Arliss lived downstairs, Rodney lived upstairs. A few months back, Rodney had brought home a bale of hay, planning to use it for mulching his organic garden, but he never got around to it and the hay bale remained on Arliss's porch. Arliss asked Rodney to get rid of the hay, but Rodney hadn't moved fast enough. So one night, Arliss and his girlfriend cut the twine and spread the hay out over the front lawn.

  Rodney called the police, and they had actually arrested Arliss on the grounds of criminal mischief: legalspeak for destroying a bale of hay.

  "Why are the taxpayers of New Hampshire shelling out money for a case like this to be tried in court?" Alex asked.

  The police prosecutor shrugged. "The Chief asked me to pursue it," he said, but then he rolled his eyes.

  He had already proven that Arliss had taken the bale of hay and spread it over the lawn--the burden of proof fulfilled. But a conviction in this case would mean Arliss would have a criminal record for the rest of his life.

  He might have been a lousy neighbor, but he didn't deserve that.

  Alex turned to the prosecutor. "How much did the victim pay for that bale of hay?"

  "Four dollars, Your Honor."

  Then she faced the defendant. "Do you have four dollars with you today?"

  Arliss nodded.

  "Good. Your case is filed without a finding conditional upon your paying the victim. Take four dollars out of your wallet and give it to the police officer over there, who will bring it to Mr. Eakes in the back of the courtroom." She glanced at her clerk. "We're taking a fifteen-minute recess."

  In chambers, Alex stripped off her robe and grabbed a pack of cigarettes. She took the back stairs to the bottom floor of the building and lit up, inhaling deeply. There were days when she was proud of her job, and then there were others, like today, when she wondered why she even bothered.

  She found Liz, the groundskeeper, raking the lawn in front of the courthouse. "I brought you a cigarette," Alex said.

  "What's wrong?"

  "How did you know something was wrong?"

  "Because you've been working here for how many years, and you've never brought me a cigarette."

  Alex leaned against the tree, watching leaves as bright as jewels catch in the tines of Liz's rake. "I just wasted three hours on a case that never should have made it to a courthouse. I have a splitting headache. And I ran out of toilet paper in the bathroom in chambers and had to call the clerk in to get me a roll from maintenance."

  Liz glanced up at the tree as a gu
st of wind sent a new score of leaves onto the raked grass. "Alex," she said. "Can I ask you a question?"

  "Sure."

  "When was the last time you got laid?"

  Alex turned, her mouth dropping open. "What does that have to--"

  "Most people who go to work spend their time wondering how long till they get back home to do whatever it is they really want to do. For you, it's the other way around."

  "That's not true. Josie and I--"

  "What did you two do for fun this weekend?"

  Alex plucked a leaf and shredded it. In the past three years, Josie's social calendar had become crammed with phone calls and sleepovers and packs of kids going to a movie or hanging out in someone's basement lair. This weekend, Josie had gone shopping with Haley Weaver, a junior who'd just gotten her driver's license. Alex had written two decisions and cleaned out the fruit and vegetable drawers in her refrigerator.

  "I'm setting you up on a blind date," Liz said.

  *

  There were a number of business establishments in Sterling that hired teenagers for after-school employment. After his first summer at QuikCopy, Peter had deduced that this was because the jobs mostly sucked, and they couldn't find anyone else to do them.

  He was responsible for photocopying most of the course material for Sterling College, which professors brought in. He knew how to shrink a document down to one-thirty-second of its original size, and how to add toner. When customers paid, he liked to guess what size bill they were going to pull out of their wallets just by the way they dressed or wore their hair. College kids always used twenties. Moms with strollers whipped out a credit card. Professors used crumpled singles.

  The reason he was working was because he needed a new computer with a better graphics card, so that he could do some of the gaming design he and Derek had been into lately. It never failed to amaze Peter how you could take a seemingly senseless string of commands and--magic!--it would become a knight or a sword or a castle on the screen. He liked the very concept: that something the ordinary person might dismiss as gibberish was actually vibrant and eye-catching, if you knew how to look at it.

  Last week, when his boss said he'd hired another high school student, Peter had become so nervous that he actually had to lock himself in the bathroom for twenty minutes until he could act like it was no big deal. As stupid and boring as this job was, it was a haven. Peter was alone here most of the afternoon; he didn't have to worry about crossing paths with the cool kids.

  But if Mr. Cargrew was hiring someone else from Sterling High, then that person knew who Peter was. And even if the kid wasn't part of the popular crowd, the copy center would no longer be a comfortable place. Peter would have to think twice about what he said or did, because otherwise, it would become fodder for rumors around school.

  To Peter's great surprise, however, his co-worker turned out to be Josie Cormier.

  She had walked in behind Mr. Cargrew. "This is Josie," he said, by way of introduction. "You two know each other?"

  "Sort of," Josie had replied, as Peter answered, "Yeah."

  "Peter will show you the ropes," Mr. Cargrew said, and then he left to go play golf.

  Occasionally when Peter walked down the hall in school and he saw Josie with her new group of friends, he didn't recognize her. She dressed differently now--in jeans that showed off her flat belly and a rainbow of T-shirts layered one over the other. She wore makeup that made her eyes look enormous. And a little sad, he sometimes thought, but he doubted she knew that.

  The last major conversation he'd had with Josie had been five years ago, when they were in sixth grade. He had been certain that the real Josie would come out of this fog of popularity and realize that the people she was hanging around with were about as scintillating as cardboard cutouts. He was sure that as soon as they started ripping on other people, she'd come back to Peter. Oh my God, she would say, and they'd laugh about her journey to the underworld. What was I thinking?

  But Josie never came crawling back to him, and then he started to hang out with Derek from the soccer team, and by the time he was in seventh grade he found it really hard to believe that once, he and Josie had spent two weeks coming up with a secret handshake that no one else would ever be able to duplicate.

  "So," Josie had said that first day, as if she'd never met him before, "what do we do?"

  They had been working together for a week now. Well, not together--it was more like they were doing a dance punctuated with the sighs and throaty grumbles of the copiers and the shrill ring of the telephone. Mostly, if they spoke, it was informational: Do we have any more toner for the color copier? How much do I charge someone to receive a fax here?

  This afternoon, Peter was photocopying articles for a psychology course at the college. Every now and then, as the pages whipped through the automatic collating machine, he'd see brain scans of schizophrenics--bright pink circles at the frontal lobes that reproduced in shades of gray. "What's that word you use when you call something by its brand name instead of what it really is?"

  Josie was stapling together another job. She shrugged.

  "Like Xerox," Peter said. "Or Kleenex."

  "Jell-O," Josie answered after a moment.

  "Google."

  Josie glanced up. "Band-Aid," she said.

  "Q-tip."

  She thought for a second, a grin spreading over her face. "FedEx. Wiffle ball."

  Peter smiled. "Rollerblade. Frisbee."

  "Crock-Pot."

  "That's not--"

  "Go look it up," Josie said. "Jacuzzi. Post-it."

  "Magic Marker."

  "Ping-Pong!"

  By now they'd both stopped working. They were standing next to each other, laughing, when the bell over the door chimed.

  Matt Royston walked into the store. He was wearing a Sterling hockey cap--even though the season wouldn't start for another month, everyone knew he would be tapped for varsity, even as a freshman. Peter--who'd been reveling in the miracle that here was Josie, again, like she used to be--watched her turn to Matt. Her cheeks pinkened; her eyes leaped like the brightest part of a flame. "What are you doing here?"

  He leaned against the counter. "Is that how you treat all your customers?"

  "Do you need something copied?"

  Matt's mouth cocked up in a grin. "No way. I'm an original." He glanced around the store. "So this is where you work."

  "No, I just come here for the free caviar and champagne," Josie joked.

  Peter watched this exchange from behind the counter. He waited for Josie to tell Matt that she was in the middle of doing something, which might not necessarily be true, but they had been having a conversation. Sort of.

  "When do you get off?" Matt asked.

  "Five."

  "Some of us are going over to Drew's tonight to hang out."

  "Is that an invitation?" she said, and Peter noticed that when she smiled, really hard, she had a dimple he'd never noticed before. Or maybe she just hadn't smiled that way around him.

  "Do you want it to be?" Matt answered.

  Peter walked toward the counter. "We have to get back to work," he blurted out.

  Matt's eyes flicked over Peter. "Stop looking at me, homo."

  Josie moved so that her body was blocking Peter's view of Matt. "What time?"

  "Seven."

  "I'll see you over there," she said.

  Matt rapped his hands against the counter. "Cool," he replied, and he walked out of the store.

  "Saran Wrap," Peter said. "Vaseline."

  Josie turned to him, confused. "What? Oh. Right." She picked up the materials she'd been stapling, stacked a few more packets on top of each other, aligned their edges.

  Peter added paper to the machine that was working on his job. "Do you like him?" he asked.

  "Matt? I guess."

  "Not like that," Peter said. He pressed the Copy button, watched the machine begin to birth a hundred identical babies.

  When Josie didn't answer, he went
to stand next to her at the sorting table. He gathered a packet of papers in his hands and stapled it, then handed it to her. "What does it feel like?" he asked.

  "What does what feel like?"

  Peter thought for a moment. "Being at the top."

  Josie reached across him for another packet of material and fed it into the stapler. She did three of these, and Peter was certain that she was going to ignore him, but then she spoke. "Like if you take one wrong step," she said, "you're going to fall."

  When she said that, Peter could hear a note in her voice that was like a lullaby. He could vividly remember sitting on Josie's driveway in the heat of July, trying to make a fire with sawdust, sunlight, and his glasses. He could hear her yelling over her shoulder as they ran home from school, daring Peter to catch up. He saw a faint flush paint her face and realized that the Josie who used to be his friend was still there, trapped inside several cocoons, like one of those Russian nesting dolls that hides another and another, until you reach the one that fits snug in the palm of your hand.

  If he could just somehow make her remember those things, too. Maybe being popular wasn't what had made Josie start hanging out with Matt and Company. Maybe it was just because she'd forgotten that she liked hanging out with Peter.

  From the corner of his eye, he looked at Josie. She was biting her lower lip, concentrating hard on getting the staple straight. Peter wished he knew how to be as easy and natural as Matt, but all his life, he'd always seemed to laugh just a little too loud or too late; to be oblivious to the fact that he was the one being laughed at. He didn't know how to be anyone except who he'd always been, so he took a deep breath and told himself that not too long ago, that had been good enough for Josie anyway.

  "Hey," he said. "Check this out." He walked into the adjoining office, the one where Mr. Cargrew kept a picture of his wife and kids and his computer, which was firmly off-limits and password-encoded.

  Josie followed him and stood behind the chair as Peter sat down. He keyed a few strokes, and suddenly the screen opened up for access.

  "How did you do that?" Josie asked.

  Peter shrugged. "I've been playing around with computers a lot. I hacked into Cargrew's last week."

  "I don't think we should--"

  "Wait." Peter picked his way through the computer until he reached a well-hidden file of downloads and opened up the first porn site.

  "Is that . . . a dwarf?" Josie murmured. "And a donkey?"

 
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